Portland's Crystal Ballroom -- an iconic, historic entertainment landmark for the city since 1914 -- is celebrating its centennial birthday on Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014.
To ring in the anniversary, McMenamins Crystal Ballroom has amassed an epic, 100-night celebration, appropriately called "100 Nights!" The party has been going strong since this past October and keeps churning out banger shows nightly until the 21st, with a special performance by Colin Meloy of The Decemberists.
Any band who has ever played the Crystal Ballroom, any person who has every been to a show in that special place, holds some piece of this rich, 100-year history as their own -- myself included.
This past week I caught up with Carrie Brownstein (Sleater-Kinney, IFC's Portlandia), Courtney Taylor-Taylor (The Dandy Warhols), Calvin Johnson (K Records Founder) and Jimi Biron (Music Director, Crystal Ballroom) to chat about the 100 nights of shows, what this birthday means for the NW music scene, and some of the more memorable moments from the ongoing Rock and Roll spectacle that is Portland's Crystal Ballroom.
Logan Lynn: I'm guessing you haven't been around the whole 100 years, Jimi. How long have you been connected to the venue?
Jimi Biron: In the summer of '96 Mr. Mcmenamin and I had many Saturday afternoon lunches plotting our grand Crystal re-opening. I remember cold calling (booking agent) Bob Lawton who said "Don't call me. I will call you when I hear about you." Thanks in large part to Calvin Johnson and Doug Martsch, he eventually did hear of me and we were able to host Sleater Kinney, Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo and really establish ourselves as the venue in the city.
Lynn: Do you remember the first show you ever attended at the Crystal?
Courtney Taylor-Taylor: I don't. I do remember having a little tour of it when they were still painting it before anyone had played there, and it was mind-blowing that they were taking the time to make these trippy murals. The McMenamins are just the most amazing people to build this empire of hippie grooviness.
Carrie Brownstein: The first time I went there I was playing a show. It was in 1999 and we played with The Need and Bratmobile. As a local band, the Crystal was always the place one aspired to play. The space has an historic feel. It's vast and beautiful.
Lynn: Has The Crystal Ballroom been featured on your show Portlandia yet, Carrie?
Brownstein: Yes. We filmed there for Season 4 and it will end up being featured in three or four different sketches this year.
Lynn: Do you all have any fond memories of performing at The Crystal Ballroom you can share?
Brownstein: Every memory there is a fond one, but Sleater-Kinney did our last shows there in 2006 and it is the only venue I can imagine saying goodbye from. Jimi and the Crystal felt like family at that point. We played two nights and then had a party with all of our friends in Lola's Room downstairs.
Taylor-Taylor: I think the greatest musical experience of my life -- the most completely transformative, transcendent musical experience -- was playing the Crystal. I had forgotten that I had eaten a chunk of space cake like an hour earlier, and when I walked up the stairs to the stage, you know, the white noise of the screaming and I just went, "Wow, that's really loud. Why is that so much louder than usual?" and I thought, "Did that just make me nervous?" and then I realized, "Wait, this isn't nervous. I know what this feeling is. Oh, man. That's right. I ate a big chunk of space cake!" I still hear, to this day, that that is one of the best sounds that they've ever heard at the Crystal, and one of the best shows they've ever seen. It was really amazing -- just perfectly rendered euphoric trance psychedelia!
Calvin Johnson: The Crystal Ballroom has hosted me several times over the last 18 years, either in the bands Dub Narcotic Sound System and the Hive Dwellers, as a solo artist and spinning 45s under my nom de plume Selector Dub Narcotic. It was as a solo Calvin that I opened for M. Ward during MusicFest Northwest a few years back. It was a treat to have the whole stage to myself.
Lynn: What would you say is the overall impact the venue has had on your label, K Records, Calvin?
Johnson: They're the only reason we keep at it. Jimi called the K office in 1995 to introduce himself and let us know they were re-opening the Crystal Ballroom. He wanted to know if we had any ideas for shows they could host. They have always been supportive and open to whatever crazy ideas we throw their way. They've been very encouraging.
Lynn: Looking back over the years, have there been any notable backstage moments at The Crystal Ballroom?
Brownstein: Um, yes! But I can't really divulge this information! On a more family-friendly note, we had a wonderful time hanging backstage with friends and family for our last shows. We cried a lot of tears and drank Champagne.
Biron: I remember Elliott Smith and I watching Calvin (Johnson) and Ian McKaye playing ping pong before Fugazi played with The Ex. That was one of the best shows ever. It was smoking hot and Ian said to shut the windows and crank the heat. He wanted it really sweaty. Vanilla Ice is still reigning Crystal ping-pong champ. He beat me in the final.
Lynn: (laughs) Oh god. Vanilla Ice! How about some memorable on-stage moments from the venue?
Johnson: In 1999 Make-Up played the Crystal Ballroom with Marine Research. There was a utility box that held some sound equipment that had been passed around the Portland rock'n'roll world for several years; at one time it was used for a Wipers tour, and had "DOOM TOWN, U.S.A." stenciled on the top. Make-Up were so thrilled to be so close to a piece of Portland music history during one of their songs singer Ian Svenonius held up the box displaying the stencil, singing the lyrics to "Doom Town" over and over -- a nifty moment.
Biron: My top shows are going to be Built to Spill playing "Freebird" with Pete Sears on accordion at our private employee party, the Gang of Four reunion when the real band toured together again, every Modest Mouse and Sleater-Kinney show -- and that earlier referenced Fugazi show may be the greatest of all time. But when you ask most memorable? Arcade Fire. When the show was over they got offstage with their instruments and began to walk down three flights of stairs outside -- in the middle of the street, in the middle of the night, you have Arcade Fire playing. The cops showed up and I was sure they were going to shut it down. Instead, the police stopped traffic so that the band could continue to play. That's Portland for you!
Lynn: Can you talk about some of the fires you've had to put out either by way of talent or crowds or just plain bad luck?
Biron: There is no bathroom near the stage. The green rooms are a floor below, so some folks have had to be creative. A longtime (not current) bassist for an Idaho group liked the Mason jar but a certain beautifully dark Australian act's guitarist opted for the window behind the stage. He should have looked down because he drenched a few of our security guards who were not very happy. We needed to protect the musician from security. Shane MacGowan wasn't in the venue when he was supposed to be on stage. We found him at the hotel and got him here and then he filled four pitchers with puke before going on stage and delivering an incredible, memorable show!
Lynn: Four pitchers of puke? Hot. How would you say The Crystal Ballroom has impacted the NW music scene?
Biron: Venues speak to the people that frequent them. The Crystal was built for counterculture. It was on the third floor of the building so the dancers in the '20s had time to "separate" before the cops could get there. When dancing was illegal they did it at the Crystal. The Crystal was the place to see the great soul and R&B -- Ike and Tina, James Brown, Marvin Gaye - Jimi Hendrix was reportedly fired from Little Richard's band at the Crystal. In the Psychedlic era the Grateful Dead recorded part of Anthem of the Sun at the ballroom.
Lynn: That's rich!
Brownstein: Like in any city, venues of various sizes and capacities have come and gone over the years. The Crystal has a steadiness to it. It's still here, which in and of itself feels important. It's located on a corner downtown, just up from Powell's. It's part of the landscape. It fees like a landmark. As I stated earlier, there is a slightly aspirational quality to it for Portland bands. You know you're doing okay once you play at The Crystal Ballroom -- you feel like you've made it, at least in your hometown.
Lynn: This really seems to be the case for a lot of local and regional bands. The Crystal was where I played my first big Portland show years back, opening for Storm Large, and that one night absolutely put me on the map locally.
Biron: Was that when you put out Feed Me To The Wolves? You will have to come back and play for me again!
Lynn: This was pre-Wolves, even - baby 23 year old Logan Lynn with his Casio SK-1 - but that sounds great! Let's make that happen during this upcoming 101st year, Jimi! Fun. Is that story one you hear often? Would you say the Crystal Ballroom stage serves as a launching pad of sorts for local NW talent?
Biron: I don't know what we can claim for launching bands -- the great bands rise to the top -- but I will say we have been privileged to be able to host some incredible artists before they had caught on nationally. The Shins opening up for 764-hero, Death Cab, Colin Meloy; I remember Helio Sequence asking if their friends Menomena could play with them for an annual show they used to do - and great new acts like Typhoon and Unknown Mortal Orchestra.
Lynn: What's so special about the Crystal Ballroom?
Brownstein: The floor bounces. It has a woozy, kinetic effect. It really feels like the venue comes alive with the music, like it's breathing and dancing along.
Taylor-Taylor: The Crystal is such a beautiful room that when you can really get it to work, it works better than almost any other room I know of.
Johnson: What makes the Crystal Ballroom unique in the world of rock'n'roll venues is they treat all the artists with respect. You're not just the "local opener," but an artist in your own right. Everyone there is super friendly and goes out of their way to make each show special and to make the artists feel at home. People remember that and it has garnered the Crystal Ballroom a lot of loyalty.
Johnson: Portland is its own world and they make up their own minds about music. That can be very exciting when it means the enthusiasm and momentum charge the atmosphere and takes a performance into the ether. On the other hand, it can also mean puzzled looks and mass confusion. A pal told me about seeing Elephant Man at the Crystal Ballroom. Everyone was just standing, staring at him as he performed, which caused him to be very frustrated. No one was dancing. What up with that?
Lynn: That's a very Portland thing. People are sooooo cool here sometimes. (laughs) Thank you all for taking some time out for this place that has meant so much to so many of us! Any final thoughts on The Crystal Ballroom for our readers before we go?
Brownstein: Thank you! I am grateful to have played there and to have seen countless shows there.
Taylor-Taylor: Right now, it is the focal center of Portland's world-renowned indie music scene. It is the single, central part of it. It gets the biggest bands, the best bands. The Vic in Chicago, The Fillmore in San Francisco, The 9:30 Club in Washington D.C., 1st Avenue in Minneapolis, Crystal in Portland -- these are the legendary rooms.
Johnson: It's cool that the Crystal has been around so long. Fred and Toody Cole talk about having organized local underground music events there in the early '70s. That's an important legacy to continue.
Biron: I like how it speaks to generations. We saw it at the Lorde show -- all of our kids were here. For many of them it was their first show. People of every age call the Crystal their home. We look at ourselves as the custodians of the building, but the Crystal Ballroom belongs to Portland.
Lynn: Happy Birthday, Crystal Ballroom! Here's to another century!
All Photos Appear Courtesy of McMenamins.
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